The weariness that falls on some of us in the run up to Christmas is also connected with those grim, grey days-but modified a great deal by the artificial lights, smells and colours of our Christmas. As I write this, I have finished our Village Crib Service, a children's' peripatetic service that takes place each Christmas at 4pm in our parish church of St Nicholas, Tackley Oxfordshire. It's all age and open to all, ecumenical in its spirit. All it consists of are portions of the Gospel of Luke read out and open to dialogue by the children. They help the Gospel proclamation and in the process draw parents, grandparent s and other Adults into the narrative. We sing carols and process round the church to stop at four stations, where we pause, look at what's there and say a prayer together.
It works well and in the doing of it, I get strength from the enthusiasm of the children, for at heart this celebration, like much of Christmas, is for the child in each one of us! My own tiredness becomes at one with the animals in the crib, the Ox and Ass freed from burden, nestling close to the child they instinctively love, or like the shepherds drawing near in wonder to the Christ child, cold and weary but filled with an inexpressible joy, or the exhausted Mary, content to know her child has been born safe, whole and entire.
In that story of the crib the essence of our own faith is revealed. We are not a totally cerebral religion, yes we have our books, we have laws and doctrines, but we are very down to earth, which is precisely what the incarnation and birth of Jesus are all about, God coming-down-to-earth. That is why we can instinctively understand what the crib means, we know that historically the picture of Luke's Gospel is a collation of all kinds of events: but that doesn't matter for we also understand it makes sense, the pictures painted in words capture the deepest of all truths, as John Betjeman puts it, nothing…'Can with this single Truth compare -That God was man in Palestine And lives today in Bread and Wine'
I always come back to that phrase; it has an elegiac quality that simply sticks in the mind.
But that's not all, my own musings on the feast repeatedly take me back to an even greater simplicity, 'Animals all', all those creatures who somehow creep into the story of the birth of Jesus. Several composers have created hauntingly beautiful music around one particular text of scriptural and liturgical Christmas, it comes as an antiphon in Christmas Matins: O Magnum Mysterium - "O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!" This is an allusion taken from Isaiah 1:3 "The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand."
Our children understand this so well, for them God loves the animals as much as we are loved, and loved particularly, for they in their innocence see beyond the immediate to the heart and know that in Christ God has come! Our great English choral tradition has such magnificent music at Christmas, beyond compare, but none are sweeter than those carols and hymns that tell of the innocence of Christ's appearing and of people and animals forgotten by the great but who are there with God at the crib. I am writing a poem that ends with these words:
'And on the final judgement day,
The animals will lead the way'.
My prayer for you all is that in these feasts we renew our commitment to serve the poorest, least vocal amongst us people and yes, animals all! Amen!
Christmas by John Betjeman
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.
The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.
Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.
And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
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